Interviewsand Articles

 

Bella Feldman and Elizabeth Sher at the Berkeley Art Center: Bella Bella

by Richard Whittaker , Jul 14, 2013


 

 

In 2007 Elizabeth Sher’s film Bella Bella had its world premiere at the Berkeley Art Center. The film is a loving portrait of sculptor Bella Feldman’s life moving forward after the death of her husband. In her seventies, there is new work and a new relationship with German architect, Hans—in short, life being lived fully. After the screening I spoke with Elizabeth Sher and Bella Feldman to a full house.
 
Richard Whittaker:  It’s a pleasure being here with you, Elizabeth and Bella. It’s such a beautiful film. I'd love to talk an hour with each one of you, but we don't have time for that. So let me just ask you Elizabeth, how did this film come about?

Elizabeth Sher:  Well, I’m really privileged. I know a lot of wonderful artists and I’ve made at least short films about almost all of them. But I’ve known Bella and admired her work for such a long time, three decades. Also, she’s a bit of a role model. She’s just a few years older than me, but I take any role model I can get. This film actually started because a friend of ours, Judy Foosaner, told me that Bella was dating and had all these funny stories, and that I should rush over there and videotape. So I called Bella and I started videotaping the dating. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that, exactly, which often is the case when I start a film. Then I just kept videotaping her and talking about her art. And then she met Hans. This went on for years.

RW:  How do you like the film, Bella?

Bella Feldman:  I think it turned out really nicely. I like the fact that it’s funny.

RW:  You know, I’ve seen it a couple of times now and it’s actually quite intimate. How is it for you to have such a revealing portrait out there?

Bella:  I get a little queasy sometimes.

RW:  But through Elizabeth’s film, I think you stand as an exemplary figure. Really, I find it a very encouraging. How does that feel to become exemplary?

Bella:  I think if you live long enough, you become exemplary. 

RW:  One of the things that struck me, and it was a revelation, is that here’s a film about matters of the heart. And Bella was dealing with congestive heart problems; then there was the recovery from that. Elizabeth, was this something you were factoring into the film?

Elizabeth:  Well, yes. I became aware of that. But you know, I think artists have lives and so Bella was great role model doing all of this great work. And as we get older there are more physical challenges and losing husbands and all of that. I think an artist is a whole person, a whole picture. So there is the art, which is beautiful—and I tried to feature a lot of it. But I didn’t want to make a film only about the art. I wanted it to also be about her, because she’s the person that makes the art. So the more we know about her, the more we understand her art.

RW:  So this is a film about matters of the heart and matters of art.

Elizabeth:  Yes. 

RW:  How do you see that?

Elizabeth:  I had the three threads going on. I had the art. I had the romance, and I had the health. I tried to weave them like a tapestry that would be a picture of Bella. That was the theme I was going for.
     I’ve actually made films about different decades. My first film was about toilet training when I was trying to toilet train one of my kids. Then I made a film about being in my 40s; that was menopause. Then there was the 50s; that was male menopause. And then I made the 60’s; that was cosmetic surgery and the baby boomers.
     So this is a film about the decade of the 70s and the importance of continuing to take risks, which a lot of artists do. But a lot of people kind of start shutting down, and Bella is doing all of these amazing new things on all fronts. So she is the perfect person, [turning to Bella] but also, foremost, I really, really like your art. So it was really great to make a film where I could show a lot of it.
     Let’s talk a little bit about that [to Bella]. How do you feel about the way your art shows in the film?

Bella:  I think there are some beautiful photographs in it. Elizabeth has sort of taken them somewhere else and turned them into a fantasy, but that’s kind of nice.

RW:  The war toy sequence in the film is so wonderful where the little war toys kind of come out. They look around, and they turn. And, as it’s said in the film, they’re kind of like pets. On one hand they’re ferocious like pets, and I thought it was interesting how you remarked that you noticed there was an erotic element in the way that we regard the military; like those big cannons and stuff—erotic in the sense that there is something that attracts one to those things.

Bella:  Exactly. 

RW:  You commented on that, and that seems so much a part of your work. I wonder if there’s anything you’d like to say about that aspect of it.

Bella:  Well, there are two things going on. I always feel that the work should draw you, should be formally interesting and engaging so that whatever message or even humor that is there, whatever dark side isn’t really putting you off that much. So for me there is a balancing act between pulling you in, in terms of the beauty of the work. And I’ve always had the sense that life is very precarious, not just for me personally, but for everyone. And that has fueled the content of my work. 

RW:  I find those war toys very interesting, because I cannot resolve how I feel about them. They are so cute and they are also sort of scary.

Bella:  That’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel. But unfortunately, it makes it kind of difficult in the art world, particularly in the U.S. People want things spelled out clearly. Ambiguity is not very popular. 

RW:  Right. As I watched the film, Elizabeth, I really appreciated the way you’ve used, let’s call it metaphor, the pick-up sticks sequence, for instance. How do you see that?

Elizabeth:  It was about chance and taking a chance. And Edith Hillinger is here, and it’s her hand we're seeing. I made her do it over and over and over again. I thought it would be pretty. You know, they’re colorful and they’re toys. I figured it would be a nice metaphor for taking a chance on these dates.

RW:  Yes. I was struck by several things in the film. I don’t know if you intended these or whether it’s just the way the artist works. There is the sequence where, Bella, you’re talking about the death of your husband and also Hans is talking about the loss of his wife. The film shows traffic, the road of life I’d say, going up towards the tunnel. And you go through this tunnel. At that point in the movie we’re in the part where the new life is being talked about. So was that intentional, I bet.  

Elizabeth:  Oh, yeah.

RW:  Good.

Bella:  You’re getting all the issues.

Elizabeth:  I always try, when I make a film, to fit the punishment to the crime. So I try to make the film have a connection to what the topic is. I tried to make some layers that would be somewhat sculptural, moving around them so there would just be a sense of a connection to sculpture in some of those sequences.

Bella:  They’re really very nice.

Elizabeth:  Thank you.

RW:  I was also struck by the part where you reveal in the film that you had an undiagnosed congestive heart failure condition. Then the piece of your work is showing the heart, then it switches to the negative space there, which is such a powerful visual transition.

Bella:  You know, you’ve seen it several times—more than I have.

RW:  I have seen it a couple of times. And the more I’ve seen it, the more I’ve appreciated it. Do you feel happy with it as you’ve seen it tonight? 

Elizabeth:  Yes. I am very happy with it. I wouldn’t be showing it if I wasn’t ready to show it. So yes, I am. You know, nothing is perfect, but that’s how the evil spirits get out. How’s that for a disclaimer?

RW:  So I’m guessing that Hans must be in Europe since he isn’t here tonight.

Bella:  Yes, he’s in London right now.

RW:  It wasn’t quite clear to me in the film whether you were actually living part-time in Europe or not. 

Bella:  I live there summers and so far I’ve been there a month at Christmas time, but probably not this year. But I’ll spend three, four months out of the year.

RW:  It sounds like you’ve sort of worked out this compromise, as you put it.

Bella:  I must say that spending all this time in Europe, living in a house and not being a tourist, I sort of feel like an imposter, sort of a fake European.

RW:  I think it’s interesting that here’s this German man you’ve gotten involved with so intimately. And I suppose the thought could come up of consorting with the enemy. We’re all so subject to this kind of categorical thinking. The film and your own relationship with Hans shows a freedom from these categories, but was there ever any difficulty around that?

Bella:  Well, once I got to know him there wasn’t. But of course, you know, when I look at him, he is very German-looking. I did live through World War II and I had friends who died in World War II as prisoners.

RW:  I’d think there is the potential for some sort of healing activity on many levels.

Bella:  Of course, he is actually a year younger than I am, so he was really too young to participate, to have participated in it himself.

RW:  Maybe people have some questions.

Audience:  I’m curious about your ending the film with a Yiddish song.

Bella:  That’s a song people have always sort of gone into when I’m introduced to them.

Elizabeth:  That’s because it says, “Bella, Bella.”

RW:  I was struck by the soundtrack, because I had seen the film first without the soundtrack. [to Elizabeth] How do you feel about the soundtrack?

Elizabeth:  Oh, I love it. I think Elise really did an incredible job. She also wrote all the music which I think sets the mood. And really, I can’t thank her enough. She’s amazing, amazing.

RW:  And then the camera work was really interesting. There’s a comment you made in the film about how important scale is in how one experiences an object. And in the film we get different experiences of scale. Did you do the camera work yourself?

Elizabeth:  I did the stuff that was the least interesting. And Maggie Simpson did a lot of great filming in her studio of the glass and everything. Then Rick Schmidt did the moving sculptural pieces and moving around the edges. And Banker White did that animation sequence and allowed me to use it in the film.

Audience:  What impact did your stay in Africa have on your artwork and has it evolved?

Bella:  Well, it did initially. I mean we came back in 1970 from Africa and for probably about 10 years I was working off animal imagery, because of that experience. But that was a long time ago and I’ve left animals for machines.

Audience:  You mentioned your animal pieces.

Bella:  By the way, one of these early pieces that came from my experience in Africa, it also came out of doing this in the water cave series. I was doing these wax rats. Anyway, it’s a very surrealistic piece that I reconstructed from something I originally did in 1971. The California College of Arts is having its 100th anniversary and I reconstructed this piece for the anniversary. It opens October 14th at the Oakland Museum. So if you want to see an early work, it is probably the best of my early works.
 
Elizabeth:  One of the things that inspires me about Bella’s works, with some artists their work grows, but it remains similar the whole way through. Other artists go through different stages and there’s a thread, but the work changes more. Bella’s does that, changes more, and mine does that. So I really have admired that. And you can still tell it’s all Bella’s work, but she is free to do bodies of work.

Bella:  Particularly if you’re not a hot seller. You’re free to do whatever you want. 

Audience:  I’m curious about how it did evolve into machines, because I have a German heritage. All of the men in my family were iron workers in Germany. My father had a huge workshop. So the construction that you were doing as a woman, in my family, it was done by men. And I was just curious, how did you come into that?

Bella:  Partly I think by being fearful of machines and being pretty terrible with machines that I sort of came to grips psychologically by actually creating machines, or doing art about machines. That’s part of it. Part of it is also this sense of the machine as both a very essential part of our lives and also ultimately threatening us. There’s this ambivalence. The machine is kind of a metaphor for both the positive and the threatening aspect. 

Audience:  You talked a lot in the film about more monumental-sized pieces. And they are so intriguing to me, because they are really graceful. Can you talk a little bit about the emotional recollection or underpinnings that came about through that work. It’s very important stuff. 

Bella:  I just recently finished that series and started a whole different body of work. And right now it’s very difficult for me to talk about that.

Elizabeth:  I can say one thing that I think is always true in your work—they’re strong, but they’re also feminine. And they have a little bit of irony to them. They’re really massive and strong, but there’s something else about them that feels very—there’s a woman part. And that’s what Hans talks about, too. I notice that in all of your work.

Bella:  Well, they’re not actually monumental. They’re tall, but they’re actually quite delicate.

Elizabeth:  Yes, because they have the glass.

RW:  That reminds me that in the film, especially towards the end, you showed one piece of Bella’s in particular a lot; it’s almost like having legs going up to sharp points. Tell us a little bit about that, Elizabeth. How did you decide to use that piece in your film?

Elizabeth:  It’s really intuitive. So when you make a documentary, you have a lot more footage than you can actually use. And Bella says a lot of wonderful things that I couldn’t use, because you have to kind of drive the piece forward. If you get too detailed about certain things, people get confused and they don’t get it. So you have to be careful to keep the thing driving forward. And then the visuals have to work with the next visual. Everything is just kind of intuitive, you know. So the ones that I chose seemed like the best fit for that moment in the film.

Audience:  This is something I’ve told Bella about. I find her work very erotic. And erotic in the sado-masochistic sense, as well. The glass pieces have a highly sexual charge. I think there is a presence in the film, and I think it’s very much in your work.  

Bella:  Well, it is one of the basics of life.

Audience:  But the work is quite beautiful and feminine, and it’s also slightly edgy and dangerous.

RW:  [to the audience] Do any of you know Bella’s work long ago when she was using rose bush stems?

Bella:  That series actually did come from my experience in Africa. When I was there, there was a great killing off of the wild animals. In many cases they were actually poaching the park life. And when we drove through, we would see these stretched skins around the shacks, the huts. Actually with the fiberglass, it is kind of a stretched skin that’s held together. And just as the skin there was held by stakes of some kind of wood, this is held by rose stems. So that was part of the imagery. It also reflected my fears and feelings about the nuclear arms race that was going full-tilt at that time. I was very fearful. I really felt my children, thank goodness they’ve lived to adulthood, but I had fears that they would not. These pieces reflect kind of a grim hope that if life is obliterated, that at least simple-celled organisms would stay alive and the cycle would begin again.

Audience:  Liz, when are going to stop making films?

Elizabeth:  Yeah, someone said my last film will be me in the grave and they’re throwing dirt on me. The end.

Bella:  It’s very nice to see so many of my former students here.

RW:  You know, Elizabeth, it occurred to me that this film has a lot of meaning for you. 

Elizabeth:  I always like to make films about people and subjects I want to learn more about. I can ask a lot of questions and I have a perfect excuse, because it’s a documentary. So I get to find out a bunch of stuff. And then hopefully I can piece it together in such a way that other people will be interested. And because I’m an artist and I work with artists, I kind of understand what artists do maybe more than an outsider coming in. So it’s fun for me to try to make something that’s a representation of what an artist is—without a lot of Hollywood things that are sensational. I would probably make a lot more money, but I’m more interested in artists living their lives. And it has just been a pleasure and a privilege to have conversations with Bella over the years and to get closer to her. That’s why I do it. So I always learn from it and then my job is to make something that other people can get something from.

RW:  I think you have.

Elizabeth:  Can we eat cake?

RW:  Yes. Let’s adjourn. Thank you so much.

APPLAUSE…

Bella Feldman
Elizabeth Sher
      
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 

 

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